Willa Cather's 1896 pronouncement that the artist's ability to keep an idea alive is "the greatest of all the gifts" applies as much to critical as to artistic expression, for in attempting to reenvision our understanding of an individual writer or, more boldly, to refashion our conception of an entire period, the critic also ventures on perilous seas. She too must rely on the fiction-maker's craft. Two recent studies of Willa Cather well illustrate the peril and the ecstasy of the critic's voyage. Susan J. Rosowski's The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism and Sharon O'Brien's Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice nicely complement each other as they make notable contributions to our understanding of an author whose own Odyssey was for the most part bounded by American shores.
Deserving of study is Susan J. Rosowski's effort to uncover Willa Cather's indebtedness to British Romanticism. Arguing that Cather's ties to the Romantics have gone largely unnoticed, Rosowski carefully analyzes her fiction by suggesting [End Page 670] how the writer's aesthetic theory and literary practice were shaped by "the intellectual tradition most important to her." In particular, Rosowski stresses Cather's affinity for Keats's aesthetics of "negative capability" and attends as well to specific Keatsian echoes in Cather's writing. Her interpretation of "The Bohemian Girl" and O Pioneers! is thus enriched by her discussion of "The Eve of St. Agnes," her reading of A Lost Lady enhanced by her analysis of "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
Rosowski also examines the changing dynamics of Cather's relationship to her Romantic inheritance by noting the ways in which the writer's attitude toward the imagination altered over the span of her career. Dividing Cather's career into three phases, Rosowski maintains that whereas such early works as My Ántonia and The Song of the Lark "affirm the vitality of the imagination and emotion against the limitations of reason," the fiction of the later periods points to the darker side of the imagination, hence the Gothic overtones in Lucy Gayheart and Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Significantly, Rosowski endeavors to show how Cather's artistic practice diverged from that of the Romantics. Her readings of The Song of the Lark as a female Künstlerroman and of Sapphira and the Slave Girl as "American Gothic" astutely explicate Cather's revisionist aesthetics.
Yet Rosowski's study of Cather's fiction is also flawed by the limitations of her critical method. Eschewing such labels as "feminist, naturalist, lesbian, [or] realist" as possible lenses by which to interpret Cather's work and uninterested as well in examining the relationship between the author's life and art, Rosowski's predominantly New Critical approach suffers in some measure from tunnel vision. Never does Rosowski convincingly demonstrate why Cather was drawn to British Romanticism more than to any other tradition; moreover, never does she address the problematic question of how Cather's lesbianism made her literary voyage the more perilous. Indeed, the word lesbian is in some respects the absent center of this study, appearing not at all in the index and only once in the text.
Rosowski's silence would be less striking were it not for the recent publication of Sharon O'Brien's superlative literary biography Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. Drawing upon Cather's assertion in her Preface to The Song of the Lark that "success is never so interesting as struggle," O'Brien justifies her own decision to focus on the writer's early career. The struggle O'Brien records is a dialogic enterprise, one that centers on the complex interrelationship linking the life and the art, the artist and her time. Of particular interest is O'Brien's lively account of Cather's teenage years as a cross-dresser in the conservative prairie town of Red Cloud, her treatment of the young girl's "Oedipal" attraction to and repulsion...